Wright Friction Persists

Supporters of the Wright agreement called them "the four little words."

Tucked into legislation to repeal the Wright amendment, the words - intended to exempt the deal from antitrust laws - nearly cratered the compromise to lift restrictions on long-haul flights at Dallas Love Field.

The language was removed from legislation in the U.S. Senate this week, keeping the Wright fight alive as the clock ticks down on the congressional session.

But the battle is far from over.

Even if the legislation clears Congress next week, the Wright-repeal movement is expected to hit more rocky terrain in a court fight treading over many of the same issues.

The debate over the antitrust language this summer came to represent almost every facet of the decades-long dispute - how to bring airline competition to North Texas, whether Congress should involve itself with the in-city airport, why the effort to repeal a contentious 1979 law needed even more contentious legislation.

Lawmakers from North Texas say their efforts, fighting some of their most powerful colleagues on Capitol Hill, were merely intended as protection to help ensure their Wright legislation survived once it passed.

The deal "was always going to be subject, in my view, to litigation," said Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell.

But some legislative language about how to treat the agreement could be added protection in front of a trial judge, he said.

The need for an antitrust exemption wasn't expressed in the June agreement among the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, American Airlines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The five parties designed their agreement for protection from one another, and penalties were devised if any of the signatories chose to renege on their commitments.

But when the deal moved to Washington in the form of legislation weeks later, the four-word antitrust protection was built in to help protect the five parties from outsiders: The bill deemed that the compromise complied with the U.S. transportation code "and any competition laws."

North Texas lawmakers thought they had widespread support for their legislation.

But that immunity clause, once it was highlighted for congressional committees that oversee antitrust laws, drew a bitter fight - and more questions.

Couldn't the deal stand on its own? Why wouldn't the legislation survive in court if it really was good for consumers?

Wasn't the Wright repeal movement about creating more competition?

Critics of the antitrust exemption intervened, creating hurdles to the legislation that still haven't been cleared completely.

Proponents of the agreement maintain that the deal is good for consumers - or at least that it's better than the current situation, in which Love Field flights are limited to a nine-state region.

Even before the agreement for new language was reached this week, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said she was not afraid the North Texas compromise would lose a court challenge.

The antitrust immunity, she said, was necessary to protect Dallas from getting tied up in court over the next eight years - a tight timeline for the condemnation of gates and planned improvements to the airport.

The antitrust protection "has nothing to do with our ability to win in court and everything to do with our ability to implement our plan," she said.

The proposal would lift Love flight restrictions in 2014 and immediately allow for one-stop flights beyond the Wright perimeter.

In perhaps the most controversial piece of the deal, the number of available gates at Love would be cut to 20 from 32. Nineteen are now operational. The gate reduction would lead to the demolition of the unused six-gate terminal owned by Love Terminal Partners LP.

That group sued the mayor and the parties and launched a lobbying effort that brought the antitrust exemption before key lawmakers.

The lead attorney for the terminal group, Bill Brewer of Dallas, said the five parties involved in the deal engaged in "collusive activity" that would harm consumers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Lawmakers said they expected the terminal group to mount further challenges in court - one reason the bill needed protection from antitrust suits.

Mr. Brewer said, "We are going to press this debate in every way that we can for as long as we can, because we believe that the bill is not proper."

But the legal threat to the parties would be much greater than any challenge by Love Terminal Partners, he said.

"They care about the class-action consumer antitrust actions that will be filed, if this agreement was to take effect and there is no immunity," he said. "There are lawyers lined up outside the courthouse within minutes to file that case."

A House version of the Wright legislation, which North Texas lawmakers plan to push next week, retains the immunity clause but could be substituted with the Senate language if members wanted.

The Senate version removes the antitrust exemption and offers other protective language to show that Congress is ordering the gates at Love to be torn down.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who has been pushing the issue through Congress, said outside parties could still make claims in court, but "we will pass a bill that protects our parties."

"I never felt there was an antitrust issue," she said. "People can sue and cities can make agreements."

Lawmakers from North Texas have been quick to acknowledge that they'll do what the five parties need to get the deal done.

The key, they said, is to explain to their colleagues in Congress the history behind the Wright legislation and why the divisive issue needs to be resolved.

"This problem is largely of Congress' making to begin with," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound. "I hope people can understand why it is important to us in the D/FW metroplex to have this 35-year-old burr pulled out from under our saddle."

Staff writer Emily Ramshaw in Dallas contributed to this report.

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